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European Union Targets 2012 for Phasing Out Analog Terrestrial Broadcasting

While U.S. broadcasters focused on the DTV Transition Act of 2005 (see NewsBytes article Subsidies Are Sticky Point in DTV Draft Bill) that would set Dec. 31, 2008 as the date for shutting down full service analog TV broadcasting in the United States, European regulators looked at ways to speed the "analogue switch-off" across Europe.

A Communication from the Commission of the European Communities on accelerating the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting proposes establishing the beginning of 2012 for the switch-off of analog terrestrial broadcasting. In the press release Commission expects most broadcasting in the EU to be digital by 2010. Announcing the Communication, Information Society and Media Commissioner Reding said, "By recommending 2012 as EU deadline for the digital switch-off, I would like to give a political signal to market participants and customers alike that digital TV will soon be a reality. The sooner we complete switchover, the sooner our citizens and businesses will benefit."
Additionally, Reding said pan-European coordination of spectrum use will provide citizens with new services--mobile "datacasting" of videos or multimedia content and that most EU member states have decided on 2010 as the switch-off date and six have selected 2012.

The Communication identifies two main obstacles to a rapid switchover to digital:

  • "in the political arena: absence of political decisions such as national switch-off or political decisions not to set up switch-off dates, and a lack of European approach and policy;

  • in the economic/market arena: need for a large installed base of receivers; poor consumer demand based on lack of incentives to switch (lack of perceived added value, cost of receivers, etc.); a reluctance, based on financial risks, from operators to invest."

The Communication lists factors that contribute to a successful switchover policy. The Commission's analysis found that while the switchover process should be market driven, "broadcaster coordination is needed to achieve a smooth technical and commercial implementation (e.g. compatible timetables)." The Communication also notes that having an effective strategy to inform consumers about program availability about digital platforms and the equipment is crucial.

Retail prices of digital receivers and set-top boxes have fallen making the cost of digital television equipment less of a concern for most citizens, according to the Communication.

The Communication also addresses the question of what to do with the spectrum recovered once the switchover is complete. Options include new or improved broadcasting services such as HDTV, convergent services combining features of mobile telephony and terrestrial broadcasting such as mobile datacasting, and new electronic communication services such as wireless local area networks and metropolitan area networks that are different from today's fixed and mobile services. However, the Commission acknowledges there could be a scarcity of spectrum during the transition while digital and analog signals are simulcast.

In discussing future use of the spectrum now used for analog TV broadcasting, the Commission warns it will be important "to not constrain unduly the reuse of these bands." "A key action for the EU and its Member States in the Regional Radiocommunication Conference in 2006 and the World Radio Conference in 2007 is to maintain the possibility of flexibility of use for the ex analogue TV bands." The Communication notes, "While flexibility of allocation is needed, it is not necessary to decide at this stage how any spectrum dividend might be assigned to individual users.